The reluctant King of Newgrass
Sam Bush says he’s still learning to play the mandolin.
“There are still many things I don't know about mandolin, and I think when you stop learning, you've played enough,” Bush says. “So I hope that never happens.”
The multi-instrumentalist from outside Bowling Green, Ky., picked up his first mandolin at age 11. Bush hypothesizes that growing up on a 330-acre farm, more than a bike ride’s distance from friends, helped him hone his craft. To stave off boredom, Bush sat down and played. Now he’s widely considered one of the best mandolin players to ever pluck a string.
His chops are matched by his innovation. Bush’s nickname is the King of Newgrass. He earned the title by helping create the genre that blends traditional bluegrass with lengthy jams and cut-and-dried rock ’n’ roll. Bush also adds a spirit of hippie-dippy experimentation and a spoonful of reggae to his brand of newgrass.
“Playing rhythms on the mandolin is one of the most joyful things I get to do.”
In the ’70s and ’80s, Bush led the seminal New Grass Revival, a band that reshaped bluegrass into a more youth-friendly creature. He’s always been influenced by older forms of bluegrass, but Bush grew up listening to The Beatles, Eric Clapton and The Rolling Stones as well. “I was a sponge for all kinds of music,” Bush explains. “It was all good to me.”
Now he tours the country alongside his handpicked group of trusted musicians, who supply the bass, banjo, guitar and drums. Bush chips in vocals, mandolin, fiddle and electric guitar.
Bush spoke about why he adores the mandolin, his aversion to playing alone and his fondness for riffing on Harry Caray.
Early on, you were uncomfortable with being called the King of Newgrass. How do you feel about it now?
I've become more comfortable with it. But I'm quick to point out that there was a new kind of bluegrass that was going on in the late ’60s and early ’70s. That's kind of why we called it New Grass Revival, because we felt like we were reviving a style that already had variated from traditional bluegrass.
I've read that Bill Monroe told you to stick to the fiddle when he saw your mandolin technique. Why do you think he gave you that advice?
It was said that Mr. Monroe, in his younger days, was a bit competitive. I don't think he wanted to see a little kid coming along playing the mandolin so good. Or, who knows, maybe when he heard me play the mandolin, what was running through his head was: Man, that guy will never get it; he'd better stick with the fiddle.
What attracts you to the mandolin?
One of the things I love the most about it is, I love playing rhythm. Playing rhythms on the mandolin is one of the most joyful things I get to do.
Have you tried anything new--in the studio or on tour--that you think could influence the next movement in bluegrass?
It's kind of hard to know that. I’ve played with this outrageous jazz saxophone player named Bill Evans. He got interested in the fusion of banjo, mandolin, violin and saxophone with a jazz rhythm section of bass and drums. He called it “soulgrass.”
You always perform with a band. Have you ever thought about playing by yourself?
I tried it a little bit. I played three or four shows in the late ’80s. To be honest, it wasn't any fun. What I enjoy most is playing with the other musicians. Sometimes after a couple of songs, I can't think of what to play if I'm not interacting with the other pickers. The greatest fun for me is to play with others and then for us to get that circle of energy going with the audience. Then, before you know it, the whole room is involved.
What’s the deal with the Harry Caray impersonation on your voicemail message?
[In Harry Caray voice.] Well, hey, Simon, you're a good-looking ball player for asking. I used to hang out with guys who would try to do Harry. [Back in normal Sam Bush voice.] We’d go around the room imitating Harry after he'd say something. We had a Harry Caray jam session.
The Sam Bush Band gets everyone involved on Sunday, Jan. 18, at the KiMo Theatre. The Band of Heathens starts picking first. Tickets are $25 to $35 and can be purchased at the KiMo box office or through Ticketmaster. Show starts at 7:30 p.m., and everyone’s invited regardless of age.